Godfather of J-horror escapes from genre’s grip

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Hideo Nakata could be called the godfather of contemporary Japanese horror, but he would probably hate the label. Regardless, this 52-year-old director of such genre classics as “Ring,” “Ring 2″ and “Honogurai Mizu no Soko kara (Dark Water)” has made J-horror — a combination of present-day settings and technology (the death-dealing video tapes in “Ring”) and age-old lore about vengeful spirits — into a global brand.

I first met Nakata during his many interviews with local journalists at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, which screened his thriller “L no Honto no Himitsu (L: Change the World),” the last film in the “Death Note” trilogy.

The first thing I noticed about him then, in 2008, was his accented-but-fluent English, honed over the frustrating years he had spent in Hollywood producing the widely panned 2005 film “The Ring Two,” a sequel to the 2002 hit Hollywood remake of Nakata’s “Ring.”

If he’d been an actor, the burly shouldered, square-jawed Nakata probably would have been cast in truck-driver roles, but in person he is more of the quiet, sharp-eyed artist than the swaggering working-class hero.

When I meet him again, this time at the Hilton Tokyo in Shinjuku, to talk about his new film “Monsterz,” the first thing he wants to clarify is that although “Monsterz” is a remake of Kim Min-seok’s hit psychological-thriller “Haunters” (2010), it has no parallels with the remake he produced with “The Ring Two.” He also emphasizes that he and his collaborators “respected the basic idea of the original Korean film” in their rewrite.

With that out of the way, he details the ways his new film departs from its model. “To begin with, I didn’t think the climax in the original — a car chase — was effective,” he says. Nakata felt it wasted the visual potential of the film’s bad guy, who has the ability to bend others to his will with a simple stare. “He can manipulate the behavior of others, as many people as he wants, as far as he can see,” Nakata explains. “So why not make a climax with many people?” Not to spoil things, but what Nakata came up with is as different from a car chase as possible.

At the same time, Nakata wanted to keep “the atmosphere of the original film,” particularly in the opening sequence, when the unnamed bad guy, played by Tatsuya Fujiwara, first demonstrates his unsettling power over others.

Despite the comic-book flavor of that psychic power, as well as the powers of the other lead character, Shuichi (Takayuki Yamada) — a furniture mover who proves impossible for the bad guy to manipulate or kill — the film’s mood is darker and moodier than typical Japanese thrillers, which are often more concerned with action and effects than character psychology.

At the same time, Nakata felt the flashback scenes in “Haunters,” which illuminated the bad guy’s twisted psyche, would not fit the Japanese context.

“It’s supposed to be taking place in 1994 — not that far away from my perspective, but it felt to me like the Showa Era (1926-89),” he says.

More specifically, the Korean film had a Showa Era-like air of poverty that Nakata thought would not suit a Japan that was still relatively wealthy, even after the end of the bubble economy.

“The producers and I felt that the bad guy shouldn’t act like a poor man,” Nakata explains.

“In the original film, he tries to rob a pawn shop, but in our version he robs a bank. We changed the bad guy’s standard of living,” Nakata adds with a laugh.

Presented with the casting of two strong personalities as the leads — both Yamada and Fujiwara tend to dominate any scene they are in — Nakata realized he had to prepare his crew for what might be a clash of the titans, and so asked them to watch “Heat,” a 1995 Michael Mann thriller starring Robert De Niro as a bank robber and Al Pacino as a veteran cop.

“You have these two Godfather-like actors competing with each other performance-wise and character-wise,” Nakata says with a laugh. “We had something similar going on (with Fujiwara and Yamada). You might think it would be too much, having those two guys together on screen, but I thought we needed to introduce the same kind of power of performance you see in ‘Heat.’ Let them fight it out.”

This comparison between Nakata’s two leads and De Niro and Pacino in “Heat” is completely apt, despite any differences in reputation and skills.

Along with this rivalry, Nakata feels the two characters develop a unique “heart to heart” connection, he says. “The bad guy can manipulate the rest of the world, but he can’t communicate with it. Yes, he is trying to kill Shuichi, but in a strange way this rivalry makes him feel alive. Only Shuichi sees him as a real person — to the rest of the world he is, in a sense, invisible.”

Meanwhile, Shuichi’s own indestructibility and seeming immortality present another sort of existential problem. “If I were him, it would be a nightmare,” Nakata says. “Is immortality a good thing? It would be like watching a wonderful movie forever — you’d come to hate it. It would be better to watch a boring movie for two hours than an everlasting excellent film.”

Ultimately, Nakata believes the Korean film’s story translates well to the Japanese context because of its underlying Confucian and Buddhist outlook, one that both cultures share.

“Shuichi is thinking hard about how to live well until he dies,” Nakata says. “In Confucianism and Buddhism that’s an essential way of thinking — living better in the here and now. It’s pragmatic, not idealistic.” He also admits that this sort of subtext will not register with everyone. “It’s just entertainment,” he says with a self-deprecating grin.

But is this the kind of entertainment Nakata is known for, i.e., J-horror? “When we talk about horror, we usually mean supernatural entities, such as ghosts,” he explains. “There are no ghosts in this film — though for the bad guy, his dead mother is like a ghost in his mind.”

Then he smiles and adds: “But really, I want to run away from horror.”

As he should, since J-horror’s best days are long behind it. With “Monsterz,” Nakata’s self-reinvention continues, though he has wisely packed his trademark chills for the journey.